Irwin officials discuss how to fund fire department
The issue of designating a slice of local property taxes to help fund the local fire department has divided Irwin officials this budget season.
At last week’s Irwin Council meeting, officials debated whether it’s better to continue to have officials from the Irwin Volunteer Fire Department ask for borough funding for specific expenses or if they should create a fire-services tax to automatically fund the department.
The discussion was prompted by the department’s purchase of a new ladder truck that is expected to be delivered by the end of the year. Council is considering signing an agreement to chip in $15,000 a year to pay for the truck — which cost nearly $700,000 — or establishing a half-mill property tax that would provide the same amount of money to the fire department without stipulating how it be spent.
The tax option would require council to reauthorize the measure each year when it approves its budget, which means it could be rescinded, according to Solicitor Todd Turin.
Entering into an agreement to make $15,000 in truck payments would legally bind current and future councils for the term of the document, he said.
Irwin’s fire chief, Justin Mochar, said using an ordinance to establish a dedicated tax — similar to the one that Penn Township starting levying in 2013 — is a better choice for the fire department.
“I believe the ordinance is in our best interest because you’re making a commitment to us,” Mochar said. “You’re saying, ‘This money is earmarked for you guys for this purpose.’ Once you draft this ordinance, it’s going to be a lot harder to go back and say, ‘We’re going to take this money from the fire department.’ ”
Mochar said an agreement to pay $15,000 a year until the truck is paid off wouldn’t address the fire department’s future needs.
“Equipment purchases are never going to end for the fire department,” he said. “When this truck is paid off, it’s going to be another truck, or it’s going to be a building. There’s always going to be something.”
Though council had agreed to help pay for the new truck, Councilman John Cassandro said last week’s meeting was the first time officials talked about a fire-services tax — “and it’s a huge deal.”
Councilman Robert Wayman said contributions via a dedicated tax would allow for public input because it must be done by ordinance and advertised.
However, Councilwoman Gail Macioce — who favors entering into an agreement to make the payments — said a tax actually would eliminate discussion between elected officials and the fire department.
“I like the idea that the fire department comes to us and discusses what they are going to do so that we are able to help them make a decision,” she said. “If we just put it in the budget, that only puts into the check-writing portion of the process.”
Irwin’s proposed 2015 budget includes a fire-services tax, but borough officials will consider both options before adopting the budget next month.
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2360, or at [email protected].